Dear Steve Kerr: Never Mind LeBron James—But Americans Expect More From You on Hong Kong and China | Opinion

Dear Coach Kerr,

I have been a fan for a long time. I watched you make your way from college to the NBA. And from the broadcast booth into management and coaching. Always, you were prepared. Always, you were professional. Always, you were truthful.

Which is why I was so disheartened by your recent tragic equivocation about the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government. And your absurd moral arguments that included comparing our own government to that of China.

I don't expect a lot from LeBron James, who is one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the Earth, but not a great political theoretician, let alone a good spokesman for human rights. On Monday, he told reporters, "We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that." Little can be added to such a statement.

But I expected more from you, Steve. You are a coach and a leader. More important, your life story is much more substantive than most of the players you coach on the international relations front. Indeed, your life experience is extraordinary.

Few Americans know your story. I'm Lebanese, so I do. You were born in the country my grandparents left. Your dad, a Middle East scholar, taught at UCLA for over two decades. Thanks to his work, you spent time in places most American ball players haven't—let alone most Americans. You lived not just in Lebanon but also in places like Tunisia, Egypt and France.

You spent your high school years in Los Angeles. A onetime Bruins ball boy, you would go on to play basketball for arch rival Arizona.

In 1982, your dad became the president at the American University of Beirut (AUB). He took the job at a time when Lebanon was in political upheaval. Iran was up to no good, doing its best to disrupt the harmony that made Beirut the envy of the world, but the object of suspicion to some Islamic radicals.

Your dad had a reputation for being pro-Arab, but according to a biography by his wife, Ann Z. Kerr, he was "honest to the point of sometimes getting him into trouble." She wrote that "he could be as critical of the Arabs as he was of the Israelis. He spoke the truth as he saw it."

In January 1984, you got a call that changed your life. A 3 a.m. call in the Babcock dormitory at the University of Arizona. You learned that your father had been assassinated, shot in the back of the head after stepping out of an elevator. Islamic Jihad took credit for his death, but evidence suggested your dad's Beirut murder may have been committed by Hezbollah henchmen.

As to why he was he murdered, a friend and colleague had his explanation. AUB "attracted a variety of ethnicities, and they really got along together. That was why he went back. And that was precisely what the Iranians wanted to get rid of," UCLA Professor Emeritus David Rapoport, a political violence expert and a Kerr family friend, told UCLA Magazine. "The attack on him, while it was not really a personal attack—the symbolism was really quite obvious."

There was nothing symbolic about the murder to you, Steve. "Before my father was killed, my life was impenetrable," you told the Chicago Tribune a decade later. "Bad things happened to other people. I thought I was immune from anything like that, and so was my family.... Something like this opens your eyes."

You pulled yourself together and thrived at Arizona, and were selected 50th in the NBA draft. After a few stops in the league, you signed a contract with the Chicago Bulls. It's there—and at San Antonio—that you became one of the best role players in the sport. And won a remarkable five NBA championships.

After your retirement, you became a broadcaster. Then came a management gig at Phoenix, a return to the broadcast booth and the coaching gig with the Golden State Warriors.

You broke the NBA record for most regular season wins for a rookie coach, and were the first rookie to win an NBA Finals since Pat Riley in 1982. You returned to the NBA Finals every year since, winning two and losing two.

It's been an impressive life. You saw the world and the many different and beautiful ways people live in it. You also know that there are large differences between forms of government. And bigger divides between governments that promote freedom and governments that suppress it.

You, of all people, should know the difference between totalitarian countries and free ones, Steve. In America, you can say whatever you want about the most powerful leaders in the country and suffer no consequences. You know that's true, because you've routinely criticized President Donald Trump, and you also stood behind the NBA players protesting their own flag during games.

But you refused to stand with the general manager of the Houston Rockets when he got in hot water for tweeting an image with the slogan "Fight for freedom. stand with Hong Kong"?

You then dug an even deeper hole for yourself. Rather than talking honestly about the stark differences between the Chinese government and ours, you played a false equivalence game. "None of us are perfect, and we all have different issues we have to get to," you told reporters last week. "People in China didn't ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall."

And then you added this evasive bromide: "The world is a complex place, and there's more gray than black-and-white."

Steve Kerr Golden State Warriors
Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors stands on the side of the court during their game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Chase Center on October 5 in San Francisco. Ezra Shaw/Getty

Steve, you know that the gun issue is one the American people get to resolve at the voting booth. You're an activist for that cause. Many Americans disagree with you, and they, too, express themselves at the voting booth. And you know that the Chinese people don't have the same options. Is that too black-and-white for you?

You know that the Hong Kong protests are against the government of China, not its people, who don't get to choose, for instance, their own president. Indeed, I am not sure why we bother to call China's leader anything but secretary general, because he's the secretary general of the Communist Party of China. He's also the leader of the Communist Party's military apparatus. That formal title is chairman of the Central Military Commission. He also happens to be a president that's not elected by anyone but the party apparatus in a one-party system.

You have no opinion about a government with absolutely no separation of powers and a type of totalitarianism not seen since the days of Stalin, Steve? A totalitarian power hell-bent on repressing not just its own people but also the people of Hong Kong? Do you believe freedom of conscience and expression is a birthright for all human beings? Or just some? Or is that too black-and-white for you?

Do you believe a government should be able to throw ethnic minorities into reeducation camps or prisons like the Chinese government does to Muslims for the simple act of believing in their God? Or force Christians to perform underground services for fear of personal reprisals?

These are not black-and-white issues. They are fundamental human rights.

Do you have uncensored access to the internet, Steve? Because the Chinese people don't. The Chinese government practices a form of censorship that no one in the free world would tolerate, and for good reason. It is dangerous. And it's evil.

Have you ever done even a cursory search of China's repressive regime, Steve? Here's a quote from Human Rights Watch, not exactly a conservative organization. "The outlook for human rights is grim, and we see no sign of improvement," Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch's Hong Kong-based researcher, told the Associated Press in 2017. Wang described the state repression as the worst since 1989's Tiananmen Square. "We feel we haven't hit bottom yet."

Do you own a TV, Steve, because the 60 Minutes report on the protesters in Hong Kong this past Sunday was heartbreaking. And inspiring. We met Jimmy Lai, a man who lived the Hong Kong dream. He fled the Communists when he was 12 and rose from a factory worker to billionaire. After the Tiananmen massacre, he started a media company in Hong Kong that wasn't afraid to criticize the Chinese government.

"I like to participate in delivering information," he told reporter Holly Williams. "Because I think information is freedom."

Then came this remarkable exchange, Steve.

Lai: "The intention of the Chinese government taking away our freedom is so obvious that we know, if we don't fight, we'll lose everything."

Williams: "What do you mean 'everything'?"

Lai: "When you lose your freedom, you lose everything. What do you have?"

Williams: "I mean, you have a wonderful city. Prosperity. Why is that not enough?

Lai: "Because we are human beings. We have soul. We are not a dog."

Lai went on to explain that he is paying a steep price for his speech. The Chinese government has pressured companies not to advertise in his paper, costing him millions of dollars a year.

"That's why few business people here dare to criticize China's rulers," Lai explained.

Isn't that the real reason why you didn't want to speak your mind about the Chinese government, Steve? And why no other NBA coach, manager or player has taken a knee at the sight of the Chinese flag? Aren't you all afraid that China will cut you and the players off from a real economic opportunity, and Nike too—a real driver of the NBA economy? Be honest, Steve. Or is that too black-and-white?

We then met a young woman who called herself Paris. She had her face covered to protect herself from reprisals from the Chinese government.

"The risk I'm taking is pretty much ten years in jail on rioting charges," she told 60 Minutes. When asked why she was willing to risk her future like that, Paris had this to say: "If Hong Kong doesn't have a future, then what is my future here? I can't see Hong Kong have a future if the movement fails."

Then came the most harrowing part of the entire segment.

"Are you and the other protesters willing to risk death?" she was asked.

"No, I'm not willing to die," Paris responded. "But I accept that it's a possibility."

Then came the most damning part of the 60 Minutes piece. The reporter spoke to Bernard Chan, a Hong Kong delegate to what the reporter described as "China's rubber-stamp legislature."

Williams: "You wrote that Beijing sees this as a national security threat. Why is what happens in Hong Kong a national security threat?"

Chan: "Well, if you look at some of the slogans that are used by the protesters, they say 'Liberate Hong Kong and revolution of our time.' And then, we have protesters carrying flags of the United States, U.K. and so on."

Williams: "How is that a threat to a superpower like China?"

Chan: "I don't think, you know, it will be helpful when in any country you see, you know, sign of another country involving in your local politics."

Is that too black-and-white for you, Steve? Those flags weren't planted by foreign powers. Those flags were symbols of the universal freedoms and rights all people on Earth deserve. The Hong Kong protesters want what those countries have: the right to speak and think and vote as they please.

Steve, your father died standing up for the things he believed in. Here's hoping you'll exhibit a similar type of courage. Read up on the government of China. Because there are no shades of gray when it comes to how that country treats critics. It will punish anyone who speaks out against it, including you and your league. Isn't that reason enough to speak up?

There are no shades of gray here, Steve. It's about as black-and-white as it gets.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.